95.3 / 88.5 FM Grand Rapids and 95.3 FM Muskegon
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ep. 77 – Food Product Labels

What’s on a food product label? Could they be deceptive? Do the labels need some kind of interpretation? Dr. Chet Zelasko helps to separate fact from fiction on this edition of Straight Talk on Health

Welcome to Straight Talk on Health. I’m your host Dr. Chet Zelasko. Straight Talk on Health is a joint production with WGVU in Grand Rapids MI. I examine the world of health. Nutrition. Exercise. Diet. Supplementation. If there’s something new, I look at the science behind them, and let you know whether it’s real or not. You can check out other things that I do on my website Drchet.com and sign up for my free emails.

Nutrition experts are revered until they say something that simply doesn't make any sense. That’s a personal opinion I have but It doesn't matter how many years of experience that they have. It doesn't mean how many national awards for writing and research and you name it they have attained over the years. When they say something that just doesn't sit well, that's when they have to be called out. In this case it is an article written in a national online newspaper in their Consumer Reports section. The article has to do with six misleading food label terms and what they really mean. That was the title of the piece.

For those of you who’ve listened to me on a regular basis over the years, this is something I've talked about: food facts labels and claims made on supplement packages. But I don’t often talk about food labels. Something that's written on a nutrition facts label on food has to be factual and accurate; however, something that's written on the front of the product itself, especially where a consumer can see it, doesn't have the same type of restriction. It has to be truthful but it doesn't necessarily have to mean anything in the real world. That is different from supplement labels where claims are strictly regulated by the FTC.

Let's talk about the pluses from the actual article itself. The first happens to be one of my pet peeves. Putting no cholesterol on the label is often times misleading. Why you might ask? Because cholesterol can only be found in animal products. If there is any other type of plant-based fat or oil in the product, it may be loaded with fat but there will be absolutely no cholesterol in it. Probably the best example of this would be to buy a canister of olive oil or even the cheapest vegetable oil you can find. It can be 100% fat—which it never says on the front of the label—and have no cholesterol in it at all. That's why you need to know the source of where the oil comes from. If it says beef tallow, then that means it's going to be taken from beef fat and that will have some cholesterol in it. That one was pretty easy

The next one says lightly sweet. I don't really know what that means because I've never seen that on a food label. It may be that I don't buy those kinds of foods so that's something I would not see. But sugar is sugar, and you have to go to the FDA rules to find out the rules for food labels. In order to be considered sugar-free a product must contain less than 1/2 a gram of sugars. That means it can have no more than two calories from sugar. To be considered reduced sugar, it must contain at least 25% less sugar than a comparable product. And if it has no added sugar, then it simply means it has no added sugar. Where that might come in to play is in a juice product of some sort. If it's 100% squeezed apple juice, then you can say on the label no added sugar but it can still be full of all the natural sugars that are found in the product itself. Clear as mud right? Really, it just takes some getting used to.

The next category would be calling your product keto or keto friendly. This is where our expert, in this case Dr. Marion Nestle, a legend in the nutrition field, mixes things up a little bit. The ketogenic foods do not have any or have very few carbs or added sugars. But that doesn't necessarily make them healthy, the article implies. Well, I’m of the opinion that the ketogenic diet is not necessarily healthy for everyone. They may feel better when following it, and I think it is appropriate at various times in a person's life, but I don't think that it's a way you can eat for the rest of your life. You have to find a way to eat your veggies and fruit as well. That's my nutritional opinion because I don't think that the ketogenic diet is necessarily healthy. And that's where I think Dr. Nestle went off the rails a little bit. No carbs doesn’t mean healthy.

The next one is gluten free. Unless you're a Celiac, this one doesn't make much sense for everyone. Yes, it's true that there are some people who appear to be sensitive to gluten, which by the way, is a protein generally found in grains. But the only people who absolutely cannot have gluten are people with celiac disease that has been confirmed by genetic testing. Again, as I said, a lot of people may feel better when there are ingredients that do not have gluten in them but that doesn't necessarily imply that it's healthy. The second to last one was uncured meats and the benefit of that one may be that it doesn't contain nitrates. That may be better if it's in a food that's going to be fried and may contribute to some form of intestinal cancer. It's debatable whether this is meaningful in the real world or not when you actually dig into the data.

Here's the one that I've been saving to talk about. In the article, it refers to made with real vegetables or fruit being on the label. Dr. Nestle said the nutrition facts are in order of weight. That's absolutely a fact. She goes on to say that there are only a few that really count and if the ingredient is below the first five listed, there's probably not much of it in the product. But they use an example of Welch's fruit snacks. Those happen to be one of Riley’s favorite snacks and so that's really peaked my interest. And for those of you who don't remember, Riley is my grandson.

When you look at the front of the box it clearly says contains real fruit. But according to the article, the second and third in line on the ingredients list are corn syrup and sugar. Also correct. But the next statement is what I really question and that’s that sugar that's been added negates any real benefit from the fruit in it. I don’t buy it.

There are different portion sizes that are given online. When you break it down, in the serving size that I examined, it says that there are 14 total grams of carbohydrate per serving. If you then go down that list you see that added sugars makes up only six of those grams. Doing the math as 14 – 6, there are 8 g of carbs left. That means that 8 g comes from the fruit purees. The natural sugars would be included with that total carbohydrate level. So some of that is the natural fruit sugar but a lot of that is going to be the carbohydrates that come from the fruit itself. That also means, because they are purees, all of the phytonutrients that we would expect to see in that fruit are going to be in there. In my opinion, the sugar doesn't negate any real benefits from that fruit.

You have to remember that sugar is pure energy. It burns completely. Fat does not. Proteins do not. But sugars do. Aside from making sure that kids brush their teeth after they're done eating these kinds of fruit snacks, if the portion size is reasonable, this is not deceptive and it's not unhealthy in any way. Yes, we would all like children to eat the fruit. I like Riley to eat the fruit. But you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. In this case, in the grocery section, in the middle of a supermarket that is full of nutritional land mines and misleading labels, I don't think the analysis of what the authors wrote equals rendering those fruit snacks a useless product for kids to use. Or adults for that matter. Today’s lesson? Remember that what food labels and nutrition experts say may be absolutely true but relatively meaningless. That’s it for this edition of STOH. Until next time, this is Dr. Chet Zelasko saying health is a choice. Choose wisely today and every day.

Dr. Chet Zelasko is a scientist, speaker, and author. Dr. Chet has a Ph.D. and MA in Exercise Physiology and Health Education from Michigan State University and a BS in Physical Education from Canisius College. He’s certified by the American College of Sports Medicine as a Health and Fitness Specialist, belongs to the American Society of Nutrition, and has conducted research and been published in peer-reviewed journals. You can find him online at drchet.com.
Related Content